The American Modernist Movement


Ernest Hemingway, John Stienbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald…The American Modernist movement has generated some of the most famous authors to date. Flannery O’Connor may not have reached the fame of her modern counterparts, but that does not mean her work is of any less value. O’Connor wrote independent of the movement, with an original and controversial flair that others could not achieve. Her philosophies and convictions encompassed an entirely different world, where the ideals of Modernists clashed with her fierce Catholic beliefs. Flannery created her stories on the brink of a turbulent era, and it shows. The influence of important events in the 50s and 60s, such as African American civil rights, were a staple in many of O’Connor’s stories.


At first glance, it may appear that O’Connor does not share many of the Modernist qualities. While she did take part in the ironic nature of the era, she didn’t experiment in the form or voice, or dabble in realist fiction. Her work was continuously her own, unchanging and reliable, yet shocking.


A good example of the contrast and similarity between O’Connor and other Modernist is found in the comparison of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and O’Connor’s short story “The Lame Shall Enter First.” In Hemingway’s novel, an old and feeble man catches a massive fish, but in an ironic twist, sharks eat away at it until he has nothing but a skeleton to prove his fleeting accomplishment (The Old Man and the Sea ##). In “The Lame Shall Enter First,” a man devotes himself entirely to a disabled hoodlum who backstabs him, while his own son suffers through the painful loss of his mother. In a shocking turn of events, the hoodlum exits his benefactor’s life and the son kills himself (“The Lame Shall Enter First” 190). Ironically, the main characters in both stories are left with a skeleton; one of a fish, and one of regrets. The difference lays in Flannery’s message. She intended to comment on intellectualism and relations with God. Modernists often tackled religion in an entirely different way. They used religious symbolism to add dimensions to characters and questioned how our world would be different without God. Most did not try to impart a moral lesson on the reader like O’Connor did.


The violence she used to make a moral impression on the reader was merely a means to an end. Obviously O’Connor sought to contrast the authors of her time by providing an ethical directory, rather than sheer entertainment.


Her religion was not the only influence O’Connor lived under. During the time she wrote, America was going through a tumultuous civil rights movement. It started with Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark ruling in 1954 that put an end to segregation between white and black students (Brown v. Board of Education 1).


Racial conflicts and themes were the core of many of O’Connor’s pieces, such as in the short story “Revelation”. A haughty and self-important Mrs. Turpin chats with a well-to-do woman in a doctor’s waiting room, while mentally criticizing other patrons of the doctor, including white trash woman. “Worse than niggers anyday, Mrs. Turpin thought” (“Revelation” 194). Of course Mrs. Turpin meets an unfortunate end.


Another example of a racial theme is in the popular short story “Everything That Rises Must Converge”, in which an intellectual condemns the racist actions of his mother, who because her prejudiced behavior, is struck by a black woman, which gives her a stroke (“Everything That Rises Must Converge” 23).


In these examples we see that the civil rights movement undoubtedly influenced O’Connor. However, the moral of the stories may not have been as obvious as they appear. While the racist characters often meet sorry ends, they possess an innocence that allows the reader to sympathize with them. Traditionally, Southerners have been more sympathetic to those whose faults stem from innocence. They tend to more judgmental of the liberal sentiments that lead to folly.


Because O’Connor mostly dealt with southern issues, the prevalence of the liberalism is not as obvious as that of civil rights. Still, the major increase in liberalism during her time influenced her work. This is showcased in the story “The Enduring Chill”, where an intellectual man moves